MEET Louise: enduring Atlanta art supporter
On a nice, sunny day the FEED had the privilege of sitting down with a woman who epitomizes the history of art in Atlanta. Louise Shaw has seen it all, from the burgeoning art of up and coming Atlanta in the 1970′s, to the brain-drain that took place a few decades later, and now the current resurgence of creativity that is taking the city by storm. If you are looking on some good perspective on what makes Atlanta creatives tick and how they compare to others in bigger cities, Louise is your number one source. Please read along as she give some perspective on creativity in Atlanta and what Idea Capital is doing to keep our city artsy.
Tell us about your project:
Idea Capital came about in 2008, It was originally the brainchild of Stuart Keeler who was also responsible for Le Flash. He isn’t in town anymore but his notable artistic practice was to do community-based interventions. He is a bit of an entrepreneur. Like any good entrepreneur he would have 20 to 30 ideas and only a few would gel. He had a big impact on Atlanta by leaving two main legacies- Le Flash, which morphed into FLUX Projects, and then Idea Capital. I was introduced to him by one of the co-founders of what become Idea Capital.
Idea Capital came about in what I think was a low point in the Atlanta art scene. I have been a cultural worker in Atlanta since the 1970’s. My big claim to fame was being the Executive Director of Nexus Contemporary Art Center (what is now the Contemporary Arts Center ). I witnessed a huge change in levels of both funding and creative work.
As founders of Idea Capital, we all thought that we needed more arts funding and a way to support research, development and experimentation in the creative community. The concept started with each of the five founders putting in $100 to create the fund and then having a call for artists proposals. We had $500 to give that first year. Our first grant was to performance artist Allison Rentz.
Our founding mantra was “we are starting a movement”. The good news is that the landscape has really changed since 2008 when we started. It is incredible the number of activities going on. There is the Artadia grant, Art on the BeltLine, Punch-Bot, and Dashboard among other initiatives. When Idea Capital was launched, we were one of the only beacons in the art wasteland that Atlanta had become.
Today, there are new grants available that offer more money for artists. But we still stick by our model of small but important grants. We give 17 of them a year from $500 to $1,500. They are really for research and development for artists. If you look at our application ,we ask artists how they will be held accountable. Very few of our artists do exactly what they propose. However, the money isn’t squandered- it has gone to alternative purposes to help them develop as artists. It always goes to a good purpose.
Everyone who started this organization had a background in visual arts. We do work hard to make sure we are inclusive of other disciplines. We have given dance grants, literature grants. and in 2009 we gave a grant to an African American comic book festival. This year we want to give grants for curation as well. Not for big museums or galleries, but a smaller groups or individuals who have an idea to curate a collection of works. When you compare us to other grant programs, they ask for specifics like the number of shows or end product of the work, but we only ask artists how they want to be accountable. We fund the process not the product. We do ask for information about a project or idea and we are of course interested in outcomes and results, but we are willing to take a risk. We ask our investors to join with us in that risk.
Our model is very unique in that it is by the community for the community. If you look at our donors, we list everyone by their first name alphabetically. The person that gives $10 could be listed before someone who gives $500. We are democratic and make a statement that everyone gives what they can, any amount is important for the cause. We also allow artists to donate while still applying for the grant. We are very militant about that model. Obviously you can’t apply for a grant and be on the steering committee, but you can be a donor and apply. We feel strongly that you shouldn’t be penalized for supporting something you are passionate about.
What inspires you to do this work?
I have been a cultural worker in Atlanta for over 30 year and I was despondent about the state of affairs in here. There was a lack of opportunity available to artist. I am a big believer in the strong community we have in Atlanta. We are rising from the ashes so to speak. Years ago the environment was much more fertile for artists supporting. Things have changed dramatically again since 2008. We are in this incredible creative time where people are rising to the occasion. I wanted to do this to support the community and I think it has been a smashing success so far.
What challenges have you faced?
Raising the money is always a big challenge. We are continuing our funding drive into November this year. We are all volunteer so it can take a while to get everything up and running. We have to talk people into giving money and joining our cause. We have people who give us nice gifts in the $1000’s, but I am just as grateful for those who give $10 because I know that could be a stretch for them. It means they really believe in the process and the community. By the way, our fundraising drive for this cycle continues through November.
Last year we finally got everything online including our application. Figuring out how to use social media has been a challenge. We have recruited Lucha Rodriguez to help us build our presence. I would say the nuts and bolts of things like social media are challenging, especially for a volunteer group.
Who are you collaborating with?
We quickly realized that we needed a fiscal agent since the group didn’t want to incorporate. We didn’t see our group getting big enough to become an official 501(c)3. We ended up partnering with Alternate Roots. We wanted to find an organization that represented disciplines beyond the visual arts, and was as diverse, neutral and as above board as possible. They are very community and multi-disciplinary focused. Working with them allows us to give donors tax deductions without us having to be incorporated. Also, if you look at our list of supporters, they are individual and not organizations but we have people like Amy Miller from Atlanta Celebrates Photography and philanthropists like Louis Corrigan support us, as well as artists like Priscilla Smith. Past Idea Capital recipients also support us. It is gratifying how people come to the table. I really want to credit Stuart as an entrepreneur for starting this. Look at the legacy he has had.
Would you like to see Idea Capital replicated or expanded?
I think it is a really interesting model. We did research when we were getting started and this seemed like something to be replicated. I think this can also be done in small and large communities alike. Atlanta is a relatively big city but I can see it happening in Birmingham or somewhere similar. Giving power to the community is always a good model and will always be attractive. Last year we gave $7,000 but I would like to see that expanded to $10,000 or $15,000.
What are some key issues facing Atlanta?
I am preparing to write a column for Burnaway for their “Our Front Porch” series where I am asking where the political or issue oriented art is in Atlanta. I think that we need to step up the game. We are in a better environment for art then we were a few years ago. There was such a void and now there are all these great organizations filling it. Young people always want to create their own organizations which is great. But now that we have creative outlets, I think we need to step up the game in terms of ideas.
As the curator of the CDC museum I have access to some great things. We recently hosted a great issues based exhibit with people like Yoko Ono that focused on violence prevention. We were able to connect with groups who work in violence prevention and bring them together around this show. We were really able to connect with the community in a way I had never experienced before.
Occupy Atlanta- not that it is art oriented- is tackling big ideas. We don’t’ see enough interesting or challenging work in this town. The High Museum doesn’t present much contemporary art. The Contemporary just opened a show dealing with sexuality issues, but I think we need more exhibits like that. We need to raise the bar on issue based art and conversation. It used to be different. There was much more civil engagement. That is why I am so interested in the Occupy movement. It is almost street theater. My favorite exhibits to see actually explore ideas. It can be political, community, apocalyptic, or whatever. It really surprises me that with everything going on in the world, there is so little artistic commentary on it. To Occupy Atlanta’s credit, it has formed an arts committee, and is planning a number of art activities. The entire occupation of Woodruff Park is a kind of an artistic event.
There is an irony that we live in the age of the internet. You can get on an email list to learn about art projects and initiatives from around the world. There is incredible political discourse happening in art and its easy to find, but it isn’t happening here in Atlanta. I go to shows here and they get an A plus for effort, but now it is time to strengthen the quality. At the end of the day you must have quality content and production. Luckily I get to travel to other places and see incredible art. But I think if you don’t know what you are missing, you might not be challenged and many people don’t get to travel. We have turned a corner in the art world, but we need to go all the way with it. We need to be challenged. I challenge those people who are doing great things like Art on the BeltLine and the Goat Farm to do better, make their art to the highest quality. I think it is great we are doing all of these things, but the next big frontier is quality.
In the late 1070’s to the early 1980’s an incredible number of theaters were founded in Atlanta. I have been so saddened by 3 near death experiences for theaters here. Theater on Square, Georgia Shakespeare and Actors Express. These organizations have been a vital part of our city. It was so dire with these three places that they had to admit how much help they really needed. How does this happen? Well a big part of it is a loss of public funding. The Georgia Council for the Arts barely exists any more. Public funding gives a foundation to organizations and traditionally served as a solid base to help them relax and raise the rest of the money they need. These organizations followed all the rules and did what they were told to do, but the rug was pulled out from under them.
On the other hand, the good news is whenever there is a void, people percolate and rise to the occasion. That is why we have all these new groups coming forward.
What are some of your favorite organizations in Atlanta?
I really support Jeff Graham and Georgia Equality. Jeff was involved in the local chapter of ACT UP in the late 1980’s then he worked for AIDS Survival Project and Positive Impact. He has a background in theater as well as gay and lesbian rights. Georgia Equality is a group I think really highly of. Atlanta Celebrates Photography is amazing in how they have grown. I love photography. I think they are very inclusive and they do a great job dealing with the entire spectrum of photography; from photo journal to artistic photography. I think the Spelman College Museum and Andrea Barnwell does a great job of curating thought provoking pieces through a very defined mission. Nicole Livieratos has a collaboration with Patricia Henritze that I am a big fan of. Dance Truck has a great spirit. The food trucks are a great movement as well. Eyedrum in the heyday of its gallery program was very import and I hope they can find that energy again. Hope Cohn at Spruill Center is like the energizer bunny, she hosts many creative programs outside the Perimeter. There is some real dynamism in the Westside Arts District. When Nexus, now the Contemporary, first moved into the area it was with the hope of constructing a community so I would say it was a success!
Where can interested readers find you?
What FEED’s your soul?